Jerusalem syndrome

Jerusalem syndrome May 15, 2018

From Wikipedia: “Jerusalem syndrome is a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of either religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem. It is not endemic to one single religion or denomination but has affected Jews, Christians, and Muslims of many different backgrounds.”

This is a thing that happens when some people encounter the ancient holy city. And not just to individuals. It happens to ideologies and theologies too, even from afar. And one particular ideology and theology shaped by something like Jerusalem syndrome — “obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychosis-like” phenomena — has played a big role in shaping American foreign policy toward the city, the nation of Israel, and the occupied territory of the West Bank.

Quite simply, American foreign policy — and American politics as a whole — has been shaped by the premillennial dispensationalist folklore of Rapture Christianity. That folklore — built upon earlier apocalyptic strains of Christianity, but mostly invented in the 19th century — centers an obsession with the “End Times,” reinterpreting the rest of Christian teaching and scripture as a coded “prophecy” about the future. This “prophecy” provides a long check list of supposedly preordained events that will all come to pass before Jesus semi-returns to “rapture” all real, true Christians.

The check list is quite long because the “Bible-prophecy scholars” of premillennial dispensationalism have combed through the entire Bible in search of “prophecies” and promises to include. So, for example, the passage in Genesis 15 describing the vast boundaries of the land promised to Abraham’s descendants — “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” — becomes an End Times prophecy foretelling a future in which the modern political nation-state of Israel exists with those same boundaries. (See Pete Enns re: what’s really going on in that passage.)

For Rapture Christians, then, the current boundaries of Israel are destined to expand. Therefore, anyone who defies such expansion — American politicians, Israeli politicians, or residents of any of the nations or territories it is preordained to include — is defying the predetermined will of God. That means Rapture Christians oppose any two-state solution to provide a homeland for Palestinians. The entirety of the West Bank, they believe, is “prophesied” to become Israeli territory.

But it doesn’t stop there. The “Greater Israel” they believe is prophesied also includes big chunks of what is now Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

What does their “Bible prophecy” say will or should happen to the millions of people now living in all of that territory — Jordanians, Lebanese, Syrians, and residents of Gaza and the West Bank? Well, they don’t say, exactly. But the implication is that those people will have to go.

Rapture Christians don’t want to use the phrase “ethnic cleansing,” but it seems to be the unavoidable implication of their “prophecy,” just as it was of the “Manifest Destiny” shaping their own white Christian nationalism.

The Left Behind books attempt to portray the fulfillment of the Rapture Christians’ prophecy check list in a series of novels. Authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins described their books as “historical novels about the future.” But like most “Bible-prophecy” enthusiasts, they couldn’t muster the candor to describe the ethnic cleansing required to achieve their prophesied “Greater Israel,” so the novels simply assume its existence. I wrote about this when reading that section of the first book:

LaHaye & Jenkins fly by this remarkable development offhandedly, but it seems that in the fantastic world of Left Behind there is a firmly established peace in the Middle East: “Never had Israel enjoyed such tranquility. The walled city of Jerusalem was only a symbol now, welcoming everyone who embraced peace.”

Even the thorniest question of the Middle East peace process — the status of Jerusalem — has been easily and breezily dealt with. The entirety of Jerusalem is simply accounted as a part of Israel, but everyone else is permitted to freely come and go within it. And no one in the region has any qualms about this tidy arrangement.

How neat. How convenient, how simple and, like so much else in Left Behind, how utterly out of sync with anything resembling reality.

How this remarkable tranquility actually came about — how decades and generations of violence, hatred and mutual mistrust were swept away — L&J don’t say. They, again, don’t even seem to be interested. And it doesn’t occur to them that their readers might be interested in or curious about such a startling development.

In the real world, or in an even semi-realistic fictional world, any hint of progress toward peace in the Middle East is the stuff of Nobel prizes and banner headlines. The path toward peace is marked with the graves of brave men — Sadat, Rabin — assassinated for their willingness to pursue anything other than continuing conflict. Yet L&J see no dramatic potential in exploring such a story. They simply present a miracle formula which in turn brings about a formulaic miracle: agricultural bounty = wealth = peace and an end to all animosity.

L&J believe that “biblical prophecy” foretells the establishment of a peaceful and prosperous Greater Israel — one which includes not only the entirety of the West Bank, but everything from the Mediterranean to the freaking Euphrates. Israel, according to this strange prophecy, is like a Red Giant. It is destined to swell as it dies, swallowing up Jordan, Syria and a sizable chunk of Iraq before ultimately going supernova at Armageddon and collapsing forever into a black hole. (L&J would not approve of this metaphor — they consider the life cycle of stars a fiction of corrupt, secular humanist evolutionary theory.)

The dedication of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem is viewed by Rapture Christians as an important step toward the expansion of Israel’s borders their check list prophesies. That’s why this moment is being celebrated by so many American Rapture Christians.

For more on this “Bible prophecy” fantasy and the ways in which it is shaping American foreign policy (and further destabilizing the Middle East), see some of the following:

• Sean Illing for Vox, “This is why evangelicals love Trump’s Israel policy (Hint: It has to do with burning lakes of fire)

To understand why evangelicals are so enthusiastic about this move, I reached out to Elizabeth Oldmixon, a politics professor at the University of North Texas. Oldmixon studies the rather strange alliance between evangelical Christians and people in the orthodox Jewish community who are stridently pro-Israel.

• Philip Bump in The Washington Post, “Half of evangelicals support Israel because they believe it is important for fulfilling end-times prophecy”

Sixty percent of those age 65 and older said the fulfillment of prophecy was an important factor in their support for Israel. In a follow-up question, 12 percent of respondents said the fulfillment of prophecy was the most important reason they supported the state of Israel. A third pointed to the promise made to Abraham. (Forty-five percent of poll respondents said the Bible was the biggest influence on their views about Israel — 11 times as many people as those who said that their church was the biggest influence.)

• Michelle Chabin for RNS, “For some, the U.S. embassy’s move to Jerusalem fulfills divine prophecy

“We see the embassy as crucial to God’s timing to bring about the revelation of the messiah,” the Rev. David Swaggerty, the leader of CharismaLife Ministries in Columbus, Ohio, said following a joint Christian-Jewish Bible study session hosted at the Israeli parliament the day before the embassy ceremony.

“For evangelical Christians the embassy move is part of eschatology, the expectation of what will transpire at the end of times,” explained Rabbi David Rosen, director of the American Jewish Committee‘s Department of Interreligious Affairs. “The return of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland and the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem is seen as a stage ultimately leading to the full messianic era.”

• Eeta Prince-Gibson for PRI, “Trump, Netanyahu take evangelical support to a new level

Israeli leaders from across the political spectrum have long welcomed evangelical support. But Netanyahu, who strongly supports Trump, has taken this support to a whole new level. Netanyahu presents himself as the protector of Christian holy sites and a leader in the fight against Islamic extremism, and these stands that appeal to the evangelical base. In turn, Christian Zionists have given strong support for Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist and aggressive agendas, which has translated into some of the Trump administration’s positions.

• Jared Yates-Sexton in Salon, “Trump’s evangelical base sees doomsday prophecy in Gaza violence — and they’re thrilled

While video streamed on television of protesters bleeding and dying on the ground, I noticed very quickly a stark contrast on my social media feeds, where relatives and friends back home seemed to rejoice in the chaos. The turmoil in Gaza, according to them, represented a full vindication of the decision and further proof that something otherworldly was taking place in Israel.

• John Fea for RNS, “Is Jerusalem embassy part of God’s grand plan? Why some evangelicals love Israel

Most Americans have never heard the term “dispensationalism,” but they might have been exposed to this view of history through the popular “Left Behind” novels published in the 1990s and 2000s by Christian authors Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye.

Dispensationalists believe Israel will play an important role in end-times prophecy. They teach that the return of the Jews to their homeland will be a sign that the end of the world is near. In most dispensationalist schemes, Jesus Christ will one day descend from heaven to the Mount Olives in Jerusalem, lead an army that will defeat the forces of the Antichrist at the Battle of Armageddon and establish a 1,000-year reign on the earth.

… The fact that the most powerful nation in the world has used its influence to restore Jerusalem to its rightful place in history provides dispensationalists like Jeffress and Hagee with clear evidence that America is on the side of the angels. Jeffress likes to quote God’s call of Abraham in Genesis 12: “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you. … I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.”

For some of these dispensationalist evangelicals, Donald Trump, as the leader of a nation who has “blessed” Israel, is God’s man for such a time as this. Trump not only has the right policies on abortion and religious liberty, but he may even be a new King Cyrus.

• At his own blog, Fea notes that this dispensationalist view isn’t unanimously shared by American evangelicals: “Yes, There are Evangelicals Who Believe the Jerusalem Embassy Is a Bad Idea” and also “Mennonites, Israel, and Palestine.”

• Steve Benen looks at End-Times preacher John Hagee, “Trump’s other controversial pastor in Jerusalem today

Allies of both Hagee and Jeffress would probably make the case that the pastors haven’t peddled anti-Semitic garbage in the traditional, bigoted sense, so much as they’ve made these ugly comments from a theological perspective. This likely contributed to the Trump White House’s thinking when Hagee and Jeffress were invited to have prominent roles at today’s event.

Second, both far-right pastors have made offensive comments about Jews, but their records are filled with related quotes about other faith traditions. Or put another way, for Hagee and Jeffress, it’s not just Jews.

Christian Nightmares shares Hagee’s prayer in Jerusalem. And Hagee himself also has an op-ed out for RNS, arguing why, from the perspective of Rapture Christians, “New US policy toward Jerusalem will advance peace in the region.”

I think the key thing to understand about San Antonio mega-church pastor Hagee is that he has been grooming his son, Matt, to inherit the pulpit after his death or retirement. Setting aside issues of nepotism and dynastic egotism, preparing successors for the next generation of leadership is often a prudent step. In this case, however, it raises a red flag, because the central point of all of Hagee’s preaching and teaching — for decades now — is that there will not be a next generation.

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